Brilliance of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dillon Brooks take Canada to Olympics

With each loss against a team with inferior talent, the question only got louder for the Canadian men’s senior national basketball team: When was their advantage in that department going to overcome their relative lack of shared experience?

That was the question eight years ago in Mexico City when Canada stormed through the FIBA Americas only to lose to Venezuela in a win-and-in game that would have taken them to the 2016 Olympics. It was the question when they lost at home in Victoria in 2021, losing in the semifinals of a last-chance qualification tournament to Czechia. Frustratingly, it was the question again when they were stymied on Friday against a notably less renowned Brazilian team. A win would have put them in a great position to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Instead, they would need to beat the top-ranked program in the world, if not the best team in the FIBA World Cup: Spain.

In a thrilling 88-85 win over Spain on Sunday, Canada was not the more polished team. Even if Spain’s talent has dipped, its years of playing together and firm understanding of their stylistic ethos allowed Spain to build a double-digit lead by halftime, and build another one after Canada had erased it all in the third quarter. In the end, though, Canada had two undeniable difference-makers that Spain could not account for: Shai-Gilgeous Alexander and Dillon Brooks.

With Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Brazil all losing on Sunday and failing to qualify for the quarterfinals, a win over Spain meant Canada would clinch finishing at least second in the World Cup among teams from the Americas, and a spot in the tournament in Paris. More than anybody, it was Gilgeous-Alexander who secured the end of the two decades of missing out on the Olympics with an outrageous close to the game.

With his team down four, Gilgeous-Alexander put on a ballhandling clinic, playing with the basketball like a yo-yo and moving his defender similarly, eventually banking in a layup, plus the foul. With the game tied, there was nothing complicated. Gilgeous-Alexander, in a one-on-one matchup, stepped back and calmly knocked in a jumper from the midrange — the inefficient area of the court that only the world’s best players can turn into a reliable advantage. Unquestionably, Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the world’s best players.

He also hit six free throws down the stretch, as Spain made Canada earn it with a tough layup from 19-year-old Juan Nunez and a deep 3 from Memphis reserve Santi Aldama. Those capped Gilgeous-Alexander’s 30-point, seven-assist game. Of the six makes, it is hard to remember Gilgeous-Alexander needing the help of the rim once.

“I work so hard for those exact moments.,” Gilgeous-Alexander told Sportsnet’s Arash Madani. “And I just trust my work.”

The co-hero: the maligned Dillon Brooks, who had as rough of an NBA season as one can have and was scapegoated by the Grizzlies for their failures. Brooks plays right on the edge between aggressive and reckless, and that can be frightening.

If the always unpredictable FIBA officiating crew had been feeling differently, he might have been tossed from the game in the second half when he swung and hit a Spanish player in the head. That would have been an automatic ejection, as it would have been his second unsportsmanlike foul of the game, FIBA’s version of the flagrant foul. Canada’s other rotation wings, RJ Barrett, who carried Canada in the first quarter, and Lu Dort also were in foul trouble.

The other side of the coin: Brooks will never play scared. He drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to start the fourth. He drove through traffic for a layup, bringing Canada within five, more than midway through the quarter. And he tied the game, showing no hesitation off a feed from Gilgeous-Alexander with 79 seconds left.

Brooks’s shot selection frustrated Grizzlies fans, but the shorter 3-point line in FIBA makes him a threat, which is huge for a Canadian team that has a dearth of shooting. Brooks wasn’t without his blunders, getting in foul trouble once again in the first half and turning the ball over carelessly in transition with Canada down four in the three-minute range. Brooks will always err on the side of trying to do too much, and that can sink a team, no question.

It also can inspire a team. With team captain and veteran Kelly Olynyk faltering in the first half, making Canada too slow to defend Spain’s crisp sets, Brooks slid up a position and set screens to free some of his more scoring-minded teammates. And finally, the reason Houston gave him $20 million annually this summer, warts and all — his defence. With Alex Abrines driving baseline, Brooks bodied up the former Thunder swingman. Brooks even put his hands behind his own back, making it clear to those unreliable officials that there was no illegal reaching happening as Abrines stepped out of bounds.

That Brooks was able to avoid a fifth and final personal foul was huge — Canada won his 27-plus minutes on the floor by 16 points. He made an impact with force, but he used his guile and intelligence, too. All of that is a part of talent.

None of that is to say Canada remains worlds behind the best countries in terms of playing team basketball. The same Spanish system that produced 48 points in the first half managed just 12 in the fourth quarter, and that doesn’t happen without defensive connectivity from Canada. Offensively, there is still a lot to be desired, with that lack of shooting and individual habits of driving into traffic and coughing the ball up creating adventures. To have a chance at medalling at the Olympics next summer, Canada will have to add a lot more polish. Defensively, Canada could use a little more mobility and size up front. On the other end, shooting.

The nice thing? The win not only gives them a berth in the Olympics but more games to work on those weaknesses. That starts with a quarterfinal matchup against Slovenia on Wednesday, pitting the two best offensive players in this tournament: Gilgeous-Alexander and Luka Dončić. It gives Canada another chance in Paris of pairing Gilgeous-Alexander and Denver’s Jamal Murray, out of this tournament as he recovers from a long year that followed knee surgery. If both stars are available, that should presumably space out the floor and make Canada’s half-court offence more dangerous. They will get more experience playing with each other and under new head coach Jordi Fernández.

More than anything, it lifts the burden of the past failures to get to the Olympics, something guys like Olynyk and Dwight Powell understand. There is still a chemistry gap to make up, but Canada at least knows it will have a spot on the stage it has seen only through a television screen since 2000.

“It’s something,” Gilgeous-Alexander told Sportsnet, “that’s almost indescribable.”

(Photo of Dillion Brooks: Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP via Getty Images)

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